Fri, Jul 23, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Task force to reconsider freeway

THORNY ISSUE A team compiled by the Cabinet will decide whether to conduct another environmental impact assessment or scrap the project altogether

By Ko Shu-ling  /  STAFF REPORTER

In an effort to address the grie-vances of environmental groups, the Cabinet might conduct a second environmental impact assessment of the controversial parts of the NT$96.2 billion (US$2.84 billion) Suao-Hualien freeway construction project, instead of scrapping the project altogether, as its opponents have suggested.

The Cabinet must decide before Aug. 6 whether to forge ahead with the project or not. A Cabinet task force is scheduled to discuss the thorny issue at a meeting next Monday. The task force is headed by Minister without Portfolio Lin Sheng-feng (林盛豐) and Council for Economic Planning and Development Vice Chairman Chang Ching-sen (張景森).

The Taiwan Area National Expressway Engineering Bureau has signed a NT$3.2 billion contract with Long Da Construction and a Japanese construction company, the Maeda Corporation, for the construction of the southern segment of the Chongteh tunnel. If construction does not start within six months after the signing of the contract (Aug. 7), the Cabinet will have to compensate the contractors for their losses.

The bureau has also signed a NT$2.4 billion contract with the Raito Engineering Corporation to construct an interchange in Hsincheng, which must also begin on Aug. 7.

The Cabinet would be running the risk of damaging the government's credibility and harming the nation's image if it eventually decided to scrap the project altogether, a bureau official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told the Taipei Times.

"The government's about-face would only show that it backpedals on its policy, as was the case with another contentious construction project for the No. 4 Nuclear Power Plant," the official said.

In addition to the environmental impact report, the 15-member task force is also expected to discuss the supplementary measures proposed by Hualien County if the Cabinet decides to go ahead with the project.

Kirk Yang (楊景行), general manager of Long Da Construction, said that the company would not only suffer financial losses if the Cabinet decided to scrap the project, but also lose the opportunity to work with the Japanese company.

"We're preparing for the worst-case scenario and will accept the government's final decision as long as it's clear and certain," he said.

The project was originally slated to begin by the end of last year, but was pushed back three months because of pressure from local environmental groups.

The Cabinet's decision to delay construction had been made in response to a request by Hualien County Commissioner Hsieh Shen-shan (謝深山), who had claimed that the county needed more time to map out supplementary plans and that the freeway may damage the environment.

Opposition lawmakers have charged that the project was put on hold for political gain in an attempt to attract votes from environmentalist circles.

A poll conducted in January this year at the request of the Hualien County Government showed that 77 percent of Hualien County residents supported the construction of the Suao-Hualien Freeway, while 17 percent expressed opposition and 6 percent had no opinion.

The idea of constructing a freeway in eastern Taiwan was first proposed by the former Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) government in 1990 as part of a plan to build an nationwide freeway system.

The KMT government mapped out the plan for the Suao-Hualien freeway in January 2000, two months before the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) won the presidential election.

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